Kehila Kedosha Janina: The Last Greek Synagogue

Tucked away on the corner of Broome and Allen Street on the Lower East Side, a relatively hidden historical treasure makes its home. The last Greek synagogue in the Western Hemisphere, Kehila Kedosha Janina remains a gathering place for the Romaniote Jews (Greek Jews) of the city nearly a century after its construction in 1927.

A minority within a minority, the Romaniotes are unknown to most Greeks, who are predominantly Greek Orthodox. When I mentioned the existence of Greek Jews to my grandmother, who hails from the not-so-bustling Greek island of Nisyros, she seemed stunned, to say the least. Which is why, perhaps more than any other reason, the presence of Archbishop Demetrios – the archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America – at the opening of the synagogue’s exhibit “Dikoi Mas, Los Muestros” on Greek-Jewish Families this past Sunday (running through late October 2011) was so significant.  (See a gallery of the exhibit opening event below).

Born in Thessaloniki, the Archbishop was well aware of the presence and history of Jews in Greece. As he addressed the congregation, he recalled a Jewish French teacher he had growing up, and the “empty space” and sadness left behind by his Jewish neighbors who were lost in the Holocaust, including a schoolmate of his. He thanked the congregation for preserving their own memories, and encouraged the young people to keep the culture alive.

“Dikoi Mas, Los Muestros” is an exhibit dedicated to Greek-Jewish families, but, more specifically, to Kehila Kedosha Janina’s community, who are featured throughout. I watched as several generations came together for the exhibit to honor their common history and share memories of times past. With the Romaniotes’ traditional Greek music playing (and the smell of burekas and spanakopita nearby), it became clear to me how unique this small group really is. Small, but thriving – and hopefully here to stay.

—Michelle Michalos, associate producer